Underrated British thriller Who? out now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber
Director Jack Gold’s British 1974 sci-fi/spy thriller/psychotronic drama Who? isn’t a lost film exactly, as it seemed to always be on TV when I was a kid and it was well distributed on video in the 1980s under the inane and misleading title Roboman (a sad bid to capitalize on the success of 1987’s RoboCop…incidentally, RIP Miguel Ferrer). But it is a film that hasn’t really found any sort of following, at least not one strong enough that the movie is subject to debate and discussion. It’s just this weird ’70s Eurocurio that was out of step with its time and still doesn’t really quite fit in anywhere.
Here’s hoping that a new audience discovers its unique charms via Kino Lorber’s shimmering new Blu-ray release, a handsomely packaged edition that casts a renewed light on a film whose underlining themes of identity, political treachery and the search for meaning are still timely. The kinky visual gimmick at its core alone should have made this one more beloved. More on that later.
Who? stars Canadian actor Elliot Gould who, at this point, was at the peak of his career, having recently found grand fame in Robert Altman’s smash hit M*A*S*H. Gould is a great fit for the role of a hard-boiled, cynical FBI agent who is called in to investigate something genuinely weird. Seems a respected American scientist (Joseph Bova, Pretty Poison) working on a top secret project for the Government went missing in Russia and was presumed dead after a craw wreck. But he wasn’t killed, in fact. Russian doctors rescued him and rebuilt his body, leaving parts of his face, his right arm and his much-in-demand brain intact, the rest of him was molded into the shell of a proto-cyborg.
One day, the now quasi-mechanical scientist just appears, dressed in a suit and tie, with the hopes of resuming his top secret work. But because no one can accurately recognize the man, it’s up to the bullish Gould to lead the investigation into what – or Who? – this thing is. Is it the scientist returned to them? Or is it a kind of spybot intent on sabotaging the U.S.? What follows is a weird, fascinating drama/mystery as Gould refuses to accept that this monstrosity is really the scientist, while the obviously traumatized man/machine begins to feel further isolated, even doubting what he is himself.
Who? is based on the same-named novel by science fiction author Algis Budrys and in that novel, the scientist is much more robotized, speaking in a mechanized voice and moving stiffly, mechanically. As he explains in the entertaining directors commentary (moderated with skill by Anthony Sloman), Gold believed making his protagonist to inhuman would cramp the drama and he was right. This is Bova’s film and, despite the hokey plastic and silver-sprayed make up he has to wear, the actor delivers a sharp, tragic turn as a good man trying to hold on to whatever humanity he has left. It’s all in his eyes, wounded and weary, and you really feel for this man. In that sense, the movie definitely anticipates RoboCop but the comparisons end there. In fact, aesthetically the scientists presence feels more like you’re watching a tragic, sci-fi tinted El Santo movie. If you’ve seen any of those amazing early Mexican Lucha Libre flicks, you know that part of the bizarre appeal is watching the wrestling hero go about his daily life – dining, showering, bedding women – without ever taking the mask off. And yet no one seems to mind or ask questions. The same can be said for Bova as he sleeps, laughs, has existential crisis’s and even drives tractors during a detour as a farmer (!) while Gold just makes his oddball image simply a matter of fact. It’s kind of ludicrous and awesome and, inexplicably, a bit unsettling.
Though Bova and Gould offer sharp performances, Who? is also stocked with great supporting turns from the legendary British actor Trevor Howard and American TV actor Edward Grover, with everyone taking the absurd material totally seriously. Also of major note is the stunning score by British composer, Led Zeppelin colleague and the guy who made the incredible music for British exploitation masterpiece Psychomania, John Cameron. Evocative and edgy, I would love to see this score get a stand-alone release.
Who? is a thinking person’s genre film and we’re glad to see it revived here, in crisp 1080p High Definition. Definitely a movie worth discovering and/or re-appreciating.